This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things. I originally started eating this way to heal from chronic health problems and...it worked!
We "know better" than to eat deadly traditional Soul Food, says Nation of Islam* minister Abdul Hafeez Muhammad interviewed in a new documentary aired on PBS called Soul Food Junkies. I was hoping for an in-depth exploration of the history of soul food, but unfortunately most of this documentary was self-deprecating in a rather familiar way. It's no coincidence that one of the trailers is titled moralistically "Soul food: sacrament or sin."
Filmmaker Byron Hunt's father suffered from obesity and died relatively young of pancreatic cancer. Influenced by the health advice from The Nation of Islam, Byron blamed soul food for his father's health problems and switched himself to a plant-based diet, cutting out all pork and red meat.
It is hard to talk about Southern food without talking about soul food, which is why I can identify with this story a bit. As the documentary notes, many white Southern children were raised by African-American slaves and later servants. The food they cooked for these children influenced their taste, which is why Soul Food and Southern food are so inter-twined. In my own family, there was a great-grandmother I never knew, who was obese and died young. It was the era of Ancel Keys, the era in which the zeitgeist was to blame fat. Also there were class-based considerations, Abdul expresses the sentiment that traditional soul food existed only because our ancestors were poor and didn't know better or have better choices. Many upwardly mobile white rural Southerner's shared this disdain for their ancestral food, deeming it "poverty food." My grandmother and her sister adopted what they believed to be a healthier more modern diet, a low-fat diet excluding things like pig's feet and real butter.
They threw the babies out with the bathwater. Just because you aren't fat doesn't mean you are healthy- different health problems started plaguing people in my family, inspring me to adopt a more traditional, as in 1700s, diet that has helped me conquer many of these problems.
Early on, Byron introduces traditional soul food as things like "ham hocks, collared greens, and fried chicken". One of those things is not like the other, one of those thing does not belong- and that thing is probably the most persistent item in both Southern and Soul Food. That's fried chicken. Minister Abdul says that while he eats lots of colon-cleaning salads, he just can't give up the fried chicken. How could he? It's the bane of many members of my family as well. It's so damn delicious- crispy, salty, sweet, fatty. It hits every damn button in our brain.
One time someone I know well told me that they had eaten a healthy meal of just protein. What was it? Well they had fried chicken for lunch. I hate to break the news, but fried chicken, as delicious as it is, is not a traditional food of our ancestors or a high quality protein or fat source. Older relatives have often told me of the days in which chicken was a luxury item, something special. It wasn't until the industrialization of chicken farming that it was economically feasible for lower and middle class Southerners to buy up wings and legs to fry in batches. Also, the other essential ingredients of modern fried chicken- large amounts of cheap fat (mostly refined vegetable oil these days) and refined flour and sugar, were not part of our great-great-great grandparent's diet. I've made fried chicken from heritage hogs and chicken raised on pasture and battered with heritage corn meal. It's damn expensive. And furthermore it's hard, which brings us to another point- that so much of the so-called traditional soul and southern food is eaten out, at restaurants that basically feed us hyperpalatable sugar-coated soybean-oil drenched factory-farmed garbage. It's nothing like the original African variants fried chicken, which is not battered in wheat or sugar, and is fried in palm oil, though some argue that the Southern propensity for fried food came from the Scots-Irish.
I didn't have high hopes for this documentary based on what I'd read on blogs like The Salt.
As the film recounts, soul food was survival food in the black South. Dishes were inspired by a need to make do with what slaves could access: greens they grew themselves, leftover meat parts like pig ears and feet, and cheap foods like rice and yams loaded with calories to fuel a field slave's work. Some of these recipes had origins in Africa. (Gumbo, we learn, was the West African word for "okra.")
While it's easy enough to eat a bucket of fried chicken. I'd really challenge anyone to get fat on a diet of locally-sourced pig offal, rice yams, and greens. That seems like a difficult challenge. And the problem is that the film does NOT recount the history of soul food. It is extremely confused. It spends a lot of time on rambling and guilt and very little time exploring the heritage of actual Soul Food. It's about as accurate as if you hired Paula Deen to do a documentary on traditional Southern food.
How did things like fried chicken, white bread, and mac&cheese get to be "traditional" soul foods? This documentary does not explore this at all.
In this documentary about soul food, fried chicken is mentioned and shown at least ten times. Never is there any mention of the fact it is a side-effect of industrialization of food ,and the same kind of pseudo-tradition that harms cultures as Indian fry bread. Offal and other soul food staples are derided as unhealthy, but no one explains why. It's no coincidence that one of the only scientific explanations about what makes food unhealthy in the documentary comes from Dr. Rodney L. Ellis who mentions the unhealthy properties particular to fried foods and foods with added sugar.
Interestingly, this interview with one of the people featured in the documentary, Bryant Terry, whose vegan cookbooks I enjoyed as a vegan and still find useful now (though admittedly I often add meat stocks and butter to the recipes >:) ), was interviewed in the past and expressed exactly this distinction between the monochromatic pablum of mac & cheese, bread, and fried stuff that dominates the screen in this documentary:
In reality, soul food is good for you. In order to understand why, you have to understand grits. As seen with instant grits, mass production and distribution has diminished the product's superb quality and has obscured the distinctive characteristics that make down-home hominy so darn desirable in the first place. The taste of instant grits boxed up in a factory can never compare to the complex nutty flavor of grits stone-ground in a Mississippi mill. So it's understandable that those who have only had that watered-down stuff (read: many of my friends in the Northeast) scoff at the mention of grits.
Similar to instant grits, instant soul food is a dishonest representation of African American cuisine. And to be clear, when I refer to instant soul food, I'm not just describing the processing, packaging, and mass marketing of African American cuisine in the late 1980s. I'm also alluding to the oversimplified version of the cuisine that was constructed in the popular imagination in the late 1960s.
The term "soul food" first emerged during the black liberation movement as African Americans named and reclaimed their diverse traditional foods. Clearly, the term was meant to celebrate and distinguish African American cooking from general Southern cooking, and not ghettoize it. But in the late 1960s, soul food was "discovered" by the popular media and constructed as the newest exotic cuisine for white consumers to devour. Rather than portray the complexity of this cuisine and its changes throughout the late 19th and 20th century, many writers played up its more exotic aspects (e.g., animal entrails) and simply framed the cuisine as a remnant of poverty-driven antebellum survival food.
To paraphrase food historian Jessica B. Harris, "soul food" was simply what Southern black folks ate for dinner.
Sadly, over the past four decades most of us have forgotten that what many African Americans in the South ate for dinner just two generations ago was diverse, creative, and comprised of a lot of fresh, local, and homegrown nutrient-dense food.
Most self-proclaimed soul food restaurants, a considerable amount of soul food cookbooks, and the canned and frozen soul food industry reinforce this banal portrayal of African American cuisine. Moreover, film and television routinely bombards viewers with crass images of African American eating habits and culinary practices that further distort and demonize soul food.
Unfortunately the documentary does not clearly make any distinction like this. I can imagine a lot of people not really familiar with Southern or Soul food watching this and it playing into their stereotypes about this kind of cooking.
One of the strangest reaction I get among the more conventional eating-healthy crowd is that traditionally-raised meat is too expensive. Yet these people often maintain that meat is unhealthy anyway, so isn't that a good thing? When price increases, demand decreases- people would have to eat less meat if they switched to buying from local pasture-based farms. But there is also a myth that people in the past were healthier because they ate less meat. In the South this is not true- before urbanization and industrialization Southerners, even the poorest, had access to meat. Economic historian Robert Fogel examined records and found that many plantation owners gave meat rations on an average of 6 ounces a day, not terribly different from meat consumption levels today. The little time spent with the excellent food historian in the documentary mentions that they were often able to hunt and fish, utilizing traditions from their original homelands.
It would have been very interesting to explore some of those further-back traditions, to explore why the health problems African-Americans disproportionately suffer from are almost absent in the people left behind in Africa and to explore the rich diversity of African food culture. How people used to get flavor from a large variety of plants, stocks, and fermented foods instead of from massive amounts of sugar or processed fats. Instead, they give screen time to people like former comedian Dick Gregory who rants that "Soul food will kill you!"
Later in the documentary Byron admits he wanted something to blame. His mother and sister point out that his father had food addiction caused by a lifetime of stress and eating fast food, not "soul food addiction."
Towards the end of the documentary there is a nod towards more systematic causes of some of the health problems African Americans disproportionately suffer from, but it gets a bit derailed. For example it goes from growing your own food (though with an emphasis on produce, which may not be the savior people think) to showing a raw vegan woman preparing some veggie rolls with imported nori and talking about how good she looks. There is an emphasis on creating new interpretations of soul food that are plant-based rather than probably the much simpler and more acceptable task of getting back to real traditions and cutting out processed industrial foods. There isn't much mention of other factors involved such as pollution and access to health care. For example, many African Americans are not screened for hemochromatosis, despite the role it plays in type 2 diabetes, and yes, pancreatic cancer. Many do not get regular screenings of important biomarkers and are only treated for things like heart disease and hypertension when they end up in the ER.
There also isn't much of an exploration of why so many African Americans switched from growing their own food to relying on fast food for so many meals. The history of disenfranchisement that left many without the empowerment to produce and cook their own food.
Overall, I find it extremely disappointing and regressive that a documentary shown on public television would spread so much misinformation and scare-mongering about traditional foods. I don't think that is the path for helping people eat better. But if anything this documentary showcases a rather unfortunate American tradition- preaching extremes rather than balance and moderation.
Certainly healthy food advocates face an uphill fight in changing perceptions across the South. Take the scene at Arthur Cato's House of Southern Food in Hogansville, Ga., where the waitresses write in Magic Marker on wide pads. The grits come topped with butter. Lots of it. Fried catfish comes out of the kitchen in schools. The smoked sausage is dished out in large proportions.
"This is roots food," says Mr. Cato, wiping his hands on his apron. "I've never eaten anything else. I'm 77 years old, and I'm skinny as a rail."
At the Autagaville Cafe, a cinder-block restaurant in the heart of the Black Belt, Mary Wright shrugs off the food controversy, too. "No matter what we do, we're all going to leave here one day, so we might as well go happy and full," she says.
According to Wilson, the low-fat diet at Selma's gothic-looking high school caused a lot of "belly-achin' " as well.
Sorry, but a diet of foods like grits (not corn bread made with white flour), rice, crayfish, venison, muscadines and other berries, collards, mustard greens, pickled pigs feet, crab, offal-rich boudins made with rice, sweet potatoes, oysters, and other truly healthful traditional foods is not going to kill you, it may even make you healthier, as they foods are extremely nutrient dense. It is a shame that people might abandon these already threatened food traditions out of mis-placed fear. I will say though that there are some things they didn't know about that we understand a bit better- namely that re-using cooking fats for high-heat frying might lead to unhealthy oxidization of fats. In the rare cases I fry, I do not re-use the fat.